Oliver Knussen’s music is all about exquisiteness and elegance – not words to describe Mahler’s at the best of times, but maybe his Seventh Symphony least of all, with its odd, lumbering structure, coarse trills and abrupt changes of pace. But Mahler 7 and Knussen 2 made an attractive pairing in the hands of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda on Monday, in this excellent performance of some wide-ranging repertoire.

Gianandrea Noseda © Giovanni Caccamo by kind permission of Ermenegildo Zegna
Gianandrea Noseda
© Giovanni Caccamo by kind permission of Ermenegildo Zegna

Also contrasting was the first piece: Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture was perhaps an odd choice to kick things off with, but its mixture of gravitas and grace nonetheless made for a lively start. Noseda took it briskly and made the most of its dynamic contrasts, and some neat, clean playing, especially from the strings, boded particularly well for the next piece.

Knussen’s Symphony no. 2 dates from 1970-71, and was completed at the age of 19, but there’s little immature about it. It’s a pretty, precise setting of several poems – two by Georg Trakl and one by Sylvia Plath – bursting with nocturnal images and mentions of the moon. While a panoply of 20th-century composerly influences are apparent – Berg, Ravel and Britten maybe top the list – it isn’t derivative so much as synthesizing; a coherent and concise, not to mention sensitive, vision of the poems. Soprano Gillian Keith sang with great tone, and sparkle to match her bright pink dress, though her vibrato-heavy sound didn’t have the clarity it might have done. Still, it’s not the easiest hall to sing clearly in, and at any rate the orchestral account from the BBC Phil was stellar. Some precise string playing was matched by contributions from the wind, with Noseda and flautist Richard Davis collaborating perfectly to grant some shape to the piece’s intriguing, oddly understated ending.

It was just as clear in the performance of Mahler's Symphony no. 7 that orchestra and conductor were well attuned to each other. Noseda’s association with the orchestra extends over a decade – he was Principal Conductor until last year and remains Conductor Laureate – and this performance of what is not an easy piece to pull together spoke clearly of a strong rapport and real familiarity. The opening was characterised by clarity: Noseda let Mahler’s curious chords, driving forwards, make their own way, and even when the music abruptly segued into a waltz, the orchestra kept a straight face. It was a supremely presentational account of the movement, which allowed the music to speak for itself – though this isn’t to say that it lacked emotional clout, as its highly laboured climax was worth the wait.

Both of Mahler’s mysterious “Nachtmusik” movements, as well as the central Scherzo (marked “Schattenhaft”, or “shadowy”), caught the right balance between lightness and shadow. “Nachtmusik 1”, the second movement, continually changes mood, but ends up rather sinister. The third movement is a disturbed Scherzo which sees Mahler at his most flatly ironic. There was yet more opportunity for the BBC Phil’s strings to demonstrate their cool here, delivering the manic, deathly waltz with a certain grace. “Nachtmusik 2”, the fourth and penultimate movement, might be marked “Andante amoroso” but is not as big on sentiment as this suggests; something seems to be lurking, for all the bubbliness of the scoring (which includes a mandolin).

“Allegro ordinario” is a lunatic tempo marking for a symphony as unhinged as Mahler’s Seventh, but that’s how he rounds things off. Noseda took us through this series of bizarre episodes with vigour and, as it turned out, a brilliant sense of structure. I was amazed at how cleanly it all came together at the end: by rights, it’s an ending which leaves an awful lot unsaid, and doesn’t answer many of the questions raised over the course of this substantial and mysterious work. But somehow, though this ending shoudn’t cohere, it sort of did – which is as much to Noseda and the BBC Phil’s credit as to Mahler’s.